It was 10 years ago this summer that then-Chronicle reporter Andy Campbell volunteered to be “tased” by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Steve Mansfield also participated in the same Taser demonstration that day. The video still exists on Chronline.com, and the article is a really fun read.
But a lot has changed in the past 10 years. Andy Campbell is now a senior journalist with the Huffington Post. Sheriff Mansfield retired as sheriff and is back to work as the county’s director of emergency management. And our understanding of Taser safety has changed as well.
In 2009, Tasers were termed as a “non-lethal” option for law enforcement officers. Since then, Taser manufacturers have become aware of thousands of sudden deaths (cardiac arrest, etc.) allegedly related to Taser discharge incidents, and Taser guns are now only termed as “less-lethal” industry-wide, due to the increase in these incidents.
Overall, Tasers are still relatively safe, but in response to lawsuits, Taser manufacturers have updated their requirements, regulations, and recommendations for best practices so much and so often over the last decade, that they’ve made themselves basically impervious to litigation, and the overwhelming bulk of the liability has fallen on cities (and taxpayers) in Taser incidents gone bad nationwide.
Tasers were also a hot-button topic while I studied criminal justice at Centralia College. There was a lot of fluidity as to when Taser usage was and was not appropriate according to the “force continuum” (a scaling concept that helps illustrate proportional use of force).
So when I heard about the incident on July 2 in which Centralia Police Chief Carl Nielsen, wearing a softball uniform, called and requested Deputy Chief Stacy Denham to come to a public park and to perform an impromptu, unplanned Taser demonstration on requesting active military members and civilians during a charity softball game, there was part of me that was really curious … but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
But then, Kiro 7 came calling and showed up on the steps of Centralia City Hall where the Centralia Deputy Chief Stacy Denham doubled down on the Taser demo incident, stating: “It wasn’t a secret, it wasn’t a concern for us, because we knew what we were doing was okay.”
And that just made me really curious because it just didn’t quite line up with what I know about Tasers from my own education and experience. This is a department that once had to discipline an officer for using a Taser on subjects for more than 30 seconds at a time (2011-2012) … so it just didn’t seem reasonable that there weren’t more department regulations in place.
So I requested a copy of the Centralia Police Department Taser policy.
The first thing that stood out: “Officers are not authorized to carry department TASER devices while off-duty.”
Well, this was a softball game. So I asked: Were the chief and deputy chief considered “on duty” at the time of the demonstration? Denham says he was “technically off-duty.” The chief says that because he is exempt and has a take-home car, that he should be considered on duty and so should his deputy chief. Other officers present did not consider themselves on duty.
Records request with county dispatch says the deputy chief was, in fact, off duty (already signed out) and that the chief did not sign into service at all the day of the demonstration.
What was also interesting, was that while the current Taser policy appears pretty strict in requiring appropriate discharge for duty purposes, there was no guidance for civilian demonstration usage. So I asked the department how they have handled citizen Taser demonstrations in the past.
The department disclosed that they have actually never performed a citizen Taser demonstration. Not even at a citizens academy. No process existed for it.
After reviewing the Taser log for the incident, I noted that Centralia Police Department uses AXON Tasers. So, I looked up AXON’s requirements for safe Taser demonstration deployment. It turns out, AXON has disclosure and medical risk waivers that are required to be signed before any civilian can participate in a demonstration.
Centralia Police Department did not offer this waiver or advise the participants of any medical risks posed to them by Taser exposure.
AXON also requires that only currently certified Taser instructors perform demonstrations.
When I asked if the deputy chief was currently certified, the chief told me that he “has” been certified. When I asked the chief to clarify, he declined to answer further questions.
A records request with Centralia Police Department reveals that Denham was not currently certified and that another officer with the department is the designated Taser instructor. Nielsen declined to state why he didn’t utilize that officer or whether or not that officer was also present.
Basically, if anything had gone wrong, it would have been awful headlines for the City of Centralia (likely nationwide) and the city wouldn’t have been able to absolve themselves of liability.
So, it seemed pretty clear that, while claiming there were “no policy violations” initially, that there were, in fact, obvious issues. Additionally, the city essentially admitted that they were left hanging out there, with City Manager Rob Hill stating: “I think we all agree with you in that any future demonstrations should include a written waiver of liability by each participant.
So, when I inquired if, in fact, this was a problem in the eyes of city leadership, Hill said: “On the overall matter of police department policy, I believe it is important to note that those are not approved or vetted through the city manager or city council. Those policies are strictly the purview of the police chief, and he has sole authority within the City ranks to adopt, amend and apply them. Others may disagree with some of the policies or their application, but ultimate authority resides with the chief.”
But that just left me with one question: If the chief of police is the department’s chief policy enforcer … who ensures that the chief policy enforcer is following his own policy?
It sounds like no one.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She lives south of Chehalis with her husband and two young sons. She welcomes correspondence from the community at email@example.com.